The Music Blog: The Voice

Chester Burnett Born June 10, 1910 Died January 10, 1976

The Voice

I wrote earlier that in my opinion there are 3 bluesmen who stand alone at the top, 3 greats impossible to really rank from that point so they are 1a, 1b, and 1c. For the longest time Burnett was my clear number 1. He was the artist who gave me my real love of blues music and I think he is the most talented of the three greats and maybe just maybe he does deserve to be clearly back ay number 1. Maybe by the time I finish this blog he will be.

Most won’t know him by his name, most will only know him by his artist name, but that name will be almost universally known. Like most blues names the origin is a bit of a mystery. Burnett himself gave different versions on how he became known. One story has it that his grandfather told him stories about the wild wolves in the area and of course threatened him with them, he told Chester about how they howled and that stuck with him. Another story has Jimmy Rogers giving him the moniker and Chester once said when he discovered that he couldn’t yodel that howling seemed to work for him so he became Howlin’ Wolf. Howlin’ Wolf was the greatest blues singer ever, hands down. From his earliest performances it was said about him that shows were so good so raucous that he his voice alone could make the floor shake that he sang with his entire soul and that at a Howlin’ Wolf performance you would be equally thrilled and scared out of your wits by the man. He was large over 6’3” and always weighed around 300 pounds. He has a song where he proclaims he was 300 pounds of joy and another line says he was built for comfort and not for speed. Yet he was a gentle giant, soft spoken but he could be tough. I saw an old clip once from the late 60’s on some documentary or other and there were a group of old bluesmen gathered around and they were talking about their early days. The stories were great but from one man Son House there was clearly some underlying bitterness and it was directed at Holwin’ Wolf who just took these jibes and jabs in stride until finally he had enough and he ripped in to Son House who backed down so quickly that you knew Howlin’ Wolf had a reputation.  For the rest of the interview Son House didn’t have much to say but Howlin’ Wolf went back to that soft spoken demeanor like nothing had happened. That moment has always stayed with me. You had to be tough to work the old juke joints where Howlin’ Wolf started.

Howlin’ Wolf could also do more than just sing. He was an excellent musician and could play guitar and harmonica. Now some of the reason why he stopped playing guitar is that later his guitarist was Hubert Sumlin who I think is the greatest blues guitarist to ever walk the planet. He grew up however surrounded by blues greats and like Robert Johnson loved Charley Patton one of the early greats, a prolific songwriter and recording artist. Patton was also known for his showmanship and he took an early interest in Howlin’ Wolf teaching him to play the guitar which is pretty amazing in its own right. If you are not sure just how cool that was imagine growing up next to someone like George Harrison and having George love you so much that he gave you personal lessons on how to play the guitar. That’s some guitar instructor. Patton also was known for the way he twirled his guitar played behind his back or over his head and all of these tricks he taught Howlin’ Wolf. Later when Howlin’ Wolf wanted to learn the harmonica Sonny Boy Williamson II taught him how. If you don’t know who Williamson is, well he is also in my top 10 all time bluesmen and might be the greatest harmonica player ever. So Howlin’ Wolf was a master musician because he was taught by greats but he was always known for the voice.

Howlin’ Wolf went on to form two amazing partnerships. When Willie Dixon wrote a song for Muddy Waters that was recorded at Chess Records Howlin Wolf asked Dixon why he had never written a song for him. Dixon was one of the most important figures in Blues music because he owned and operated Chess Records a recording studio for and managed by black men. Dixon was a tremendous song writer and performer in his own right. He went on to write many more than just one song for Howlin’ Wolf. The other important relationship Howlin’ Wolf formed was with his guitarist Hubert Sumlin who again in my opinion is the greatest blues guitarists ever. Sumlin was always understated which seemed to work amazingly with Howlin’ Wolf’s big voice but in many ways he set the standard for the way both rock and roll and blues guitar developed from the 60’s on.

There is a great story which says a lot about Sumlin and even more about Howlin’ Wolf. Before his death with his health failing a group of famous and successful English rockers who had grown up listening to the blues and had done much to bring its popularity to all-time highs in the United States invited Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to London to record with them. These sessions were mostly driven by Eric Clapton and became known as the London Sessions. Now Clapton had made a mistake in the mid 60’s with a young black guitarist who was in England to start a band and jumpstart his career. He was hanging around and one night he asked Clapton if he could come on stage and play. Clapton being God and all said sure. Jimi Hendrix introduced himself to the world and humbled Eric Clapton by playing Killing Floor a Howlin’ Wolf song that Clapton did not believe could be played live. Yet Howlin’ Wolf always played the song live, he had Sumlin who created the original riff playing guitar for him. Clapton wanted no guitarist to be around him who was better so he set a stipulation on Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters that these rich English rockers could not afford to bring the two bluesmen’s bands over so only Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters could be accommodated. It was total bullshit, Clapton alone could have afforded it. Neither Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy particularly liked this but they did agree. Howlin’ Wolf had serious healthcare issues with his heart and kidneys and both of these men wanted to earn money for their families so they went. During the Howlin’ Wolf sessions they were trying to play one of his standards and failing badly so Howlin’ Wolf kept stopping them, trying to give them instruction on what he was looking for. He was a kind generous soul and he was trying to be nice. It would have been great to have gotten his impressions of the ego driven Clapton but he had a lesson for Clapton. You can tell by the way Clapton speaks during the session that he believes he is the best guitarist there. Howlin’ Wolf had told them how it should sound and then backs away gently by telling them how they should play how it feels to them. This now is one of my criticisms of white people especially Englishmen playing the blues because they don’t know how it should feel because they cannot relate where the song came from. Clapton makes the suggestion that Howlin’ Wolf should show them how to play it. Howlin’ Wolf says he can’t play in a sort of aw shucks man moment but remember who taught him. Howlin’ Wolf had spent years in the 30’s and 40’s playing juke joints and playing guitar with every trick Charley Patton had ever shown him. He didn’t play guitar later because he didn’t need to and could focus on singing. So he picks up a guitar and a slide and plays exactly what these Englishmen couldn’t. It is so sublime and Eric Clapton had nothing to say.

Howlin’ Wolf died shortly after the London Sessions. He went in for kidney surgery and died of complications a few days later. He was survived by his wife who he had married in the early early days and her two daughters who he loved and cared for as his own until the day he died. Howlin’ Wolf had always made money in the business and his wife managed their finances. He always paid his musicians very well and even provided health coverage for them. He was one of the good people to ever walk the earth, giving music to us all. His first two albums Moaning in the Moonlight and his self-titled first album which became known as the Rocking Chair album for its cover are absolute blues masterpieces. Listen and its pretty easy to see why I have him rated as the greatest blues singer of all time and one of the three greatest bluesmen ever.

Mike out

The Music Blog: Lightning Strikes

Samuel John Hopkins born March 15, 1912-died January 30, 1982

Lightning

In the blues world people used the term to describe someone really fast. Lonnie Johnson was one of the first bluesmen to be called a Lightnin’ Boy. Somehow others escaped the moniker. Robert Johnson was an absolute virtuoso but was never called Lightnin’ at least that anyone knows about. Who knows with Robert Johnson, right?

Samuel Hopkins was called Lightning but maybe not for the reason outlined above. Was he a virtuoso? Absolutely he was. Was he fast, fast as anyone? Oh yes he was. Rolling Stone Magazine has him rated in the top 100 guitarists of all time. He was born in Texas and as a child the blues music was all around. He met Blind Lemon Jefferson when he was only a child and announced then and there that the blues was in him. So he learned the guitar at an early age and as he grew and developed he was the only guitarist that Jefferson wanted or allowed to play with him. Hopkins was skilled and as he got older he made two attempts to make it as a blues performer in Houston. On his second attempt he was discovered by Aladdin records and traveled to Los Angeles where he recorded with a pianist Wilson Smith. It was there an Aladdin executive dubbed Hopkins Lightning and Smith Thunder in an attempt to make them more attractive to listen to. He recorded more and then returned to Houston and afterwards rarely traveled away from Texas until 1959 when he went to Carnegie Hall and from there Hopkins was introduced to the world.

I discovered Lightning Hopkins pretty late in my blues journey. That is somewhat surprising given how high he is on my list of all time blues artists. It’s also not surprising as there are hundreds of blues artists. Don’t even get me started with those with Blind in their name and who actually was and who wasn’t really blind. A friend gave me his complete Aladdin recordings and that introduced me. I loved him instantly and every time he comes around on my playlist enjoy him a little more.

Hopkins music is tremendous and like John Lee Hooker he was a tremendous storyteller and concert performer playing many large folk festivals. He later toured the world. Sadly he died of cancer at the age of 62 in Houston. Hopkins closely resembled the old school blues performers who often would come on stage alone and play in such a way that one man sounded like a band. He is truly a virtuoso talent. He has great songs and is a really good singer. He is rated number 5 on my all-time list of bluesmen and he is well worth listening to in an exploration of the blues.

Mike out

The Music Blog: The Storyteller

I have listened to a lot of blues over the course of my life especially in the last 25 to 30 years. When it comes to the blues there are basically 2 schools or styles and as you dive in you will hear people reference Delta Blues and Chicago Blues. Of course there are also a group of yahoos who talk about Texas Blues and point to artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Listen I would like SRV a lot more if people quit referencing him as a blues man because he isn’t. He plays rock and roll and like most rock and roll it’s infused with blues riffs and rhythms but that doesn’t make it the blues. Sorry it’s just not. Now personally I have never understood why there has to be a distinction between Chicago and the Delta. They are connected, without the Delta there really isn’t a Chicago style as that’s where the influence was. Blues men travelled up to Chicago for bigger crowds, more money, more opportunity and the Blues took hold. This is also why Memphis became such a hot spot for the blues. Hey there are songs about Highway 49 which went north.

Now in my opinion there are three greats, three bluesmen who stand so far apart from the rest who had so much more influence than the rest that they stand alone. There are many others who come close but fall somewhere in line behind these three. Each of the three is distinct from one another as they can be. All three were born in the Delta. All three played and contributed to that Chicago style. For the longest time, the ranking of these three was clear to me, there was a 1 a 2 and a 3, close but that’s how I viewed them. My number 1 was the greatest blues singer to ever walk the planet but the more I listened to the other 2 the more I realized that there was room for someone else. So I changed that ranking and another was my number 1 for a while and then the third guy had a turn. Finally I came to the conclusion that I could not rank them so now they are 1a, 1b, and 1c.

Today’s subject is maybe the one guy that universally is loved. He just had that way with people, a great story teller, a tremendous musician and of the 3 I think links blues and rock better than the others. He was electric.

He was born in 1917 although the year of his birth is in question, in Tallahatchie County Mississippi. He was the son of a sharecropper He was the youngest of 11 children. The only music allowed in the home was religious music until 1921 when his parents separated and his mother married a blues singer William Moore who introduced him to the blues. He would always credit Moore with the development of his playing style, the one chord style that was prevalent in the region. A sister’s boyfriend gave him his first guitar. This man, Tony Hollins was also credited with developing his style of play. He never forgot those two men and always gave them credit.

He left home at the ripe old age of 14 years old and claims to have never seen his parents again. He moved to Memphis where he began playing on the famed Beale Street. During World War II he moved to Detroit to work at the Ford Motor Company. After the war, he began playing in the Detroit clubs and realized that people were having a hard time hearing him. He bought his first electric guitar shortly after. In 1949 Modern Records released a demo he had recorded. At the time he was working as a janitor in Detroit. The song Boogie Chillin’ became a small hit and introduced the world to John Lee Hooker.

If you have never really heard John Lee Hooker’s music then it’s a good time to start. Over the years people have discovered my love of the blues. I have been asked to put together cd’s for people and to make suggestions on where to start, who to listen to. I used to give people the path I took, Holiday, Bessie Smith and then Robert Johnson. Holiday is a tremendous singer, I think the best of all time and she is great to listen to whether you are interested in jazz or the blues anyway but her music is not really symbolic or representative of classic Delta Blues. Smith is difficult to listen to, her music is old and it sounds tinny, most of its just her and a piano and she can turn people off in a hurry. Robert Johnson is amazing but he has few recorded songs, 28 to be exact and many of those are just different takes. He also can be difficult to listen to, to hear his words and good luck figuring out what he was doing on the guitar. He often added a 7th string. Nowadays when people ask me I tell them to listen to john Lee Hooker. You can hear the influences to rock and roll in his music. He had that wonderful unique style. To me it always sounds like he is starting in the middle of a song, that’s his style unique to him and blues boogie will get you moving. Mostly it’s that wonderful deep mellow voice. Yes I would start with John Lee then it doesn’t matter who you listen to as everyone will have to compare to him.

Hooker recorded a lot of music. He did not get paid royalties and so he hustled and worked for it. He often would record the same song early in his career under different names and provide a different version or take on the song every time.

In the 60’s blues music became very popular because of the rock and roll artists who loved it and claimed its influence. Many blues legends joined forces to make money playing with the white rock stars many of them English white rock stars. Yet Hooker had always played with anyone who wanted to play with him. In 1970 he recorded with Canned Heat. He just enjoyed playing. He also always seemed a lot less bitter than some of his contemporaries, his music not suffering as much from the highs and lows of blues popularity. One of his big songs was Boom Boom which he recorded a couple of times. Of all the blues artists out there I have always found Hooker the most likeable. He was great at telling stories and for him it was just part of the gig. He was a prolific song wirter and while many other blues artists were content to play many blues standards most of the songs Hooker sang were original songs that he wrote. He had that great delivery and sometimes he would actually talk through a song telling a story rather than sing words like the song House Rent Blues and in the background he is just playing away. He has slow songs like The Waterfront and up tempo songs like One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer all done in his unique style.

Hooker died in his sleep in Los Angeles in his home at peace with the workd.

So there you have it. In my opinion, Hooker is one of the three greatest bluesmen ever. Stick around because a second one is really close by.

Mike out

The Music Blog: Eleanora Fagan

Eleanora Fagan born April 7, 1915, died July 17, 1959.

If you don’t know who she is, then that’s certainly alright. I will introduce you to her. She was an incredible woman.

You might even be surprised, or learn something but If I could have a wish it would be that this particular blog entry makes you think.

I know there are a fair chunk of you that know my feelings on what blues music is and what it is not. I think I can even hear a few of you groan. If you don’t you can go back to that previous blog on the blues and read up and then come back to this one or you will get enough maybe from this one to know and hopefully to understand through the eyes of my friend Eleanora.

Sometimes it is very hard to understand things that happened long ago because your context is the here and now. Blues performers walked or hoboed from juke joint to juke joint to play. Now the people who attended these shows didn’t want to go and hear a bunch of sad songs about the lives they lived. They didn’t want to hear about loss, about hopelessness. They lived that every day. Blues performers played blues songs for sure as well as dance numbers and sing a-longs. Their job was to keep the crowd dancing, keep them buying hooch. The more they did that the more they got paid.

The reason why I am writing that is that when you learn who this blog is about well your first thought might be, wow is that person a blues performer. You might even think they were a jazz performer. In fact if you said that this person was the greatest jazz singer ever I wouldn’t argue. Jazz though, especially back in the 30’s and 40’s had many blues elements in the songs and jazz bands played many popular blues numbers.  No I am quite sure in my heart that the person I am writing about is the greatest singer of all time, male or female any genre you want to select, including the blues.

You see, that’s one of my problems. I simply don’t understand why some people only listen to one type of music. I am part of a blues fan group and I am shocked at how limited they are. They literally listen to what they think is the blues all day every day. Now first most of them love a bunch of white people pretending to be blues artists and that’s all they are, pretenders. I have no problem with someone loving the blues, but that music has been stolen from black culture without understanding at all where and why it derived. It is listened to and played by white people including Englishmen who don’t have a clue what the music means. They couldn’t.

Take young Eleanora. Her father abandoned her mother upon learning she was pregnant. He was an itinerant jazz performer riding circuits trying to make a living trying to make a name for himself. Eleanora’s mother worked the trains and she was mostly raised by her mother’s half-sister in Baltimore. She was truant a lot and spent time with the nuns at reform school. Her mother came in and out of her life. When she was 11 a neighbor attempted to rape her but was caught. Her mother then moved to Harlem. At 14 Eleanora went to live with her mother only to find that she was a prostitute and so soon was Eleanora. They were arrested and spent time in a workhouse.

By the age of 17 Eleanora knew she wanted to be a singer and began singing in nightclubs around Harlem. She created a professional name for herself Billie from the actress Billie Dove who she admired and Halliday after her father. She later changed that to Holiday. At 19 she recorded her first songs. And so you can see by the age of 19 years old, how much had happened in her life. She didn’t sing the blues as much as she was the blues.

Early in her singing career Holiday ran into her father. It was inevitable really as they were both playing the clubs. They reconciled and reconnected which has always astonished me. Holiday began to get noticed more and more, Count Basie noticed her and she was soon singing in his orchestra. Later she sang for a white orchestra leader Artie Shaw and his predominantly white orchestra. Shaw was good to her but the times were not. She would sing for mostly white audiences and then return to hotels where she was forced to use the kitchen entrance and the service elevator so as not to upset white patrons. Yea she knew the blues. If you want to know what was happening in the blues world, mostly nothing. It was the same as it had been musicians traveling from town to town recording a little or a lot depending on the artist and playing for juke joints mostly in the south or in Chicago. Jim Crow still ruled the land and to understand where the blues came from you have to understand, empathize and even cry for Emmit Till, for little girls blown up in a church in Alabama, for the lynching that still took place, for the hundred of atrocities committed simply because of the color of a person’s skin.

At the height of her career, Holliday made over 250,000 dollars in a three year span. She didn’t receive royalties but instead was paid upfront per recording. She did well for herself outperforming and out earning many white contemporary artists. But she wasn’t white. Holiday discovered narcotics, heroin, and drank to excess. Later the alcohol use would destroy her beautiful voice and she was arrested for narcotics and went to prison. It is doubtful a white artist of her stature would have done so. Billie Holiday was the blues. When she heard a song from a poem written by a Jewish man she wanted to sing it even though she knew the subject matter was so controversial that it possibly could ruin her career. Her father had died after being turned away from a hospital because he was colored. Yes, Billie Holiday wanted and needed to sing Strange Fruit. When it was played live all the lights would turn down and she would not sing until everyone was quiet and still. She wanted the words to hit home, she needed them to know and understand what it meant to have the blues. A solitary light would shine on only her face and when the song was over the light would go out and when the lights came back up Billie Holiday would be off stage. It was a powerful message. Her label would not record the song so she found another label that would. She had courage too.

She spent nearly two years in prison for possession of narcotics and when she was released she could only sing concert halls as she lost her cabaret card. She drank more and late recordings cannot hide the damage done. Yet she still drew huge crowds to hear her sing. But she couldn’t stop drinking and was hospitalized with cirrhosis. She improved and was discharged her doctors imploring her to quit drinking. She tried but relapsed, tried again and couldn’t stop. Of course nowadays she would have rehab options but then nothing except to dry out. She tried, she certainly did not want to die. She got sick again, inevitably and was hospitalized and she died.

Eleanora was just 44 years old. She lived the blues and she died the same way.

Somewhere in my mid 20’s I decided that loving music so much meant that I should branch out and learn a bit more. I wanted to learn about the blues and I read a lot about the blues before I ever listened to a blues song. From those earliest days my understanding of what was and what wasn’t formed. I also read many things about Jim Crow and sharecropping. I read a lot about the civil rights movement which I had already done but now did even more of and I began the process of selecting which artist I wanted to begin with. Sometimes great choices are made without any real idea why you made them. Even though I knew she was more singer than what a traditional blues artist was I selected Billie Holiday and a collection called the Quintessential Billie Holiday. I fell in love with her voice. I always want to be in a quiet place when I listen to her. There is so much sadness, so much forlorn about her delivery. Yes, Billie knew the blues. Many of her songs are jazz standards but many like Bessie Smith before her, like her contemporary Ella Fitzgerald were every bit the blues song. I can’t give you songs. If you don’t know her music then find some and listen, really listen to the words of her song but more importantly how she delivers that song. She is the best.

You did good Eleanora, you did great.

Mike out

The Music Blog: Egads, There is Gum in Hair

I sometimes wonder about today’s music and the youth that listen to it. For the last few years I have wondered if the music of my youth, my adolescence is just dead, maybe that’s why so many bands continue playing like the last gasp of a dying animal. The rock and roll I grew up with is dead replaced by something strange and electronic. My youth though had all the great bands, bands left over from the 60’s and the rock gods of the 70’s. I saw a lot of them, not as many as some, more than others but since this is my blog we will keep the focus on me.

In Texas we had these huge summer concerts that came every year sometimes played in the Cotton Bowl sometimes Texas Stadium. They called it the Texas Jam. The first band would start playing around 11 maybe a little later and the last band would go on late. It was music all day. I went to most of these through high school maybe even a couple in college, although honestly most of them were forgettable, not nearly as good as seeing one band in concert for one great show. In the summer before my junior year, just 16 years old my cousin and I were supposed to go to the Jam but he pulled out at the last minute and sold me his ticket. I literally forgot about it until the last minute and my friend Guy and I drove to Dallas at like 2 am. We parked, slept a little in the car and then when gates opened we made our way down to the field. Astroturf in the Texas Summer was essentially a roasting pan. We had very little money, no sunscreen and my fair skin just burned. There was a group of older young adults behind us and they shared sunscreeen and food with us. Somehow Guy scrounged some money and I sold the few loose joints I had on me except for 2. So we endured and then the music played. Don’t ask me who played, the usual suspects I am sure; Ted Nugent, Nazareth, I think Boston later. Somewhere in the late afternoon I discovered that I had a big wad of gum in my hair and for the rest of the day I worried at it and got part of it out. It was in there, sweaty nasty hair with a wad of gum. Guy and I moved for the last couple of acts into the stands and I worried at this gum some more. Naturally Guy said it would have to be cut out. Some time during the day the drains clogged so the outside of the field flooded and we had to walk through ankle to mid calf high water to get to the stands. It was just more misery, now my feet were wet with nasty disgusting water, I was sunburned and there was a wad of gum in my hair. The last band was Heart.

Has there ever been a band that has reinvented themselves or made as many comebacks as Heart? Even now, after Ann and Nancy Wilson spent the last couple of years quietly feuding they are back. It’s an odd thing to wax and wane the way they have but they have been to the depths only to rise again. They started off so well too one of the best debut albums ever with the songs Magic Man and Crazy On You with one of those iconic guitar intros, this one acoustic. The first album I bought was Little Queen for the song Barracuda which rapidly became my least favorite song due to horrible radio overplay to this day. Later I acquired Magazine through dubious and nefarious means (I stole it) from my sister. Those two albums should have been one but for the horrible dispute they had with their label before they finally excised themselves from the difficulty and made. For the most part I drifted from the Heart world. Oh I liked them but like other artists there were other bands I wanted to spend my money on. In college I bought the album Passionworks, and honestly despite the fact that it was a horrible flop I really loved the album, Heart seemed doomed to fade away like so many 70’s bands that did but a strange thing happened. Nancy Wilson happened. In the mid 80’s Heart released an eponymous album and the video world brought a svelte hot Nancy Wilson (in really tight clothes) to the forefront playing guitar like the rock goddess she is. Before it had been Ann Wilson’s voice but now they could sell sex too. The songs What About Love, Never and These Dreams gave the band a new breath of life and for a new generation whatever they had done before was gone. Personally I liked the album Bad Animals better but in the 80’s world you had to keep going and Heart really struggled with that and they faded a little and then once again bam they let lightning strike with the album Brigade. I thought it was cheesy especially that hit song All I Want to Do is Make Love to You. The album lacked substance. Mostly Heart settled into a nice niche. Luckily the 2000’s have made those great bands a place and a fan base that looks back on the nostalgia on how it was when bands really played instruments and knew how to rock a song. They made a few albums a few good albums and they got older and Ann and Nancy just stopped having the same vision, I am happy they made their way back together back playing the music that so many of us loved. As a teen my friends would come over and we would argue on which of us would hook up with which sister yea as if we had a shot.

The Morning after the Texas Jam that year I handed my dad’s girlfriend a t-shirt because she always wanted a t-shirt and she sat me down in a chair to get that wad of nasty gum out of my hair. She wasn’t a whole lot older than me about twelve years. Can you say midlife crisis? She used peanut butter and worked it in there and then took a comb and worked some more (ouch) and pulled and managed to get it free, All in all it was a memorable experience, not the best but it sure has stuck with me and I remember sitting in the stands as Heart played last. It could have been worse, the Texas Jam could have headlined with Zappa (hah you thought I wasn’t going to reference him) but thankfully it wasn’t his deal and I am sure us Texas rockers would have booed his ass off the stage. We know what rock and roll is in Texas.

Mike out